March 1, 2014 essays

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Three Women Who Launched a Movement

The birth of the modern American libertarian movement can arguably be traced to the work of three women.

Many years ago, thoughtful, well-intentioned, educated people in the United States all understood that socialism was the future. The average citizen might have retained a quaint belief in the American system of free enterprise, limited government, and individual rights, but among the cognoscenti — academics, artists, newspaper and radio pundits — it was widely recognized that the capitalist experiment had run its course. The overwhelming consensus was that the coming century would see economies managed by benevolent experts: the chaotic, dog-eat-dog competition of the market would give way to rational central planning.

History has been unkind to the old conventional wisdom. But the intellectual sea change preceded the visible collapse of socialist economies. The first real sign of the resurrection of the classical liberal idea came with the publication in 1943 of three groundbreaking books unabashedly defending individualism and free-market capitalism. Almost as unorthodox as the books’ contents, in the climate of the 1940s, were their authors — three remarkable women described by libertarian journalist John Chamberlain in his memoir:

If it had been left to pusillanimous males probably nothing much would have happened…. Indeed, it was three women — [Isabel] Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand — who, with scornful side glances at the male business community, had decided to rekindle a faith in an older American philosophy. There wasn’t an economist among them. And none of them was a Ph.D.

I had already absorbed the message of Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy the State and Hillaire Belloc’s The Servile State, but it was Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine, Rose Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom, and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and (later) Atlas Shrugged that turned Nock’s conception of social power into detailed reality. These books made it plain that if life was to be something more than a naked scramble for government favors, a new attitude toward the producer must be created.

Paterson, Lane, and Rand began to do just that. Each was an original thinker in her own right. But each also made a mark as a great popularizer of liberal ideas. A few beleaguered liberal economists had argued, with great force, that no planned economy could match the productive efficiency of a capitalist system. Yet these economic arguments, despite their technical force, were unable to match the power of the utopian socialist vision to capture the popular imagination. These three — Lane and Paterson almost entirely bereft of formal education, Rand writing fiction in an adopted tongue — did just that. The sweeping histories of Lane and Paterson chronicled humanity’s ascent from barbarism to civilization in a way that uncovered the necessary links between civil liberties, stable property rights, and material progress. Even more successful was Rand’s allegorical tale of a brash and brilliant young architect struggling to maintain the integrity of his work in a profession where his independence of mind is despised and resented. Above all a romantic epic, The Fountainhead also served up a blistering satire of the day’s intellectual fads and hinted at the Objectivist philosophy of rational self-interest that she would develop in greater detail in her Atlas Shrugged.

The effect the trio had was no accident: they were frequent correspondents (and friends too, at times) who saw each other — despite quarrels over fine points of ethics or conflicting religious views — as comrades in arms engaged in a war of ideas. The odds in that war looked less than encouraging, however: even the captains of industry who were emblems of the free enterprise system had, as often as not, succumbed to the prevailing orthodoxy. Undaunted, Rand wrote to Paterson in 1945: “You were right, we can do it without their help. We’ll have to save capitalism from the capitalists.”

Surveying the disheartening intellectual climate of the 40s, F. A. Hayek wrote:

We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage…. Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.

The battle, history has since shown, is not yet lost, and this is due in no small part to Rand, Paterson, and Lane’s belief in the power of ideas. Unconstrained by conventional political categories, they savaged the collectivist economic nostrums of the left even while, in their lives and careers, they exploded the rigid gender roles seen as sacrosanct by so many on the right. In the process, they laid the foundations of the modern libertarian movement. This Women’s History Month, on the sixty-seventh anniversary of their monumental triple achievement, the Cato Institute pays homage to three women without whom it would not exist.

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